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A New Chapter at Princeton University Press

A New Chapter at Princeton University Press
Christie Henry

Christie Henry, the new director of the Princeton University Press, is the first woman to take the job in the organization’s 113-year-history. Among the abilities that took her to this leadership position is a particular set of skills that sound like they would be just as useful in the CIA as the PUP.

To hear university press editors talk about it, finding a prominent author to write a science book is an act of intelligence gathering. Ed Tenner, former science editor at Princeton University Press, even borrows a term from espionage to describe the tactics he used: tradecraft. “You develop your informants, look for certain items in publications that indicate the intent to write a book,” he says.

When Tenner first took the job, he imagined it would be a lot like commercial publishing: choosing the best from a torrent of incoming manuscripts and proposals. Instead, it was the opposite. There are only so many scientists out there who want to write a book, and editors scramble to recruit them.

Editors scour university schedules for lectures by faculty who might be working on something interesting. They read science journals scrupulously, searching for research that might turn into a book. That’s tradecraft.

Christie Henry is very good at tradecraft. Henry was formerly editorial director for sciences, social sciences, and reference at the University of Chicago Press, where she helped establish the press as a science publishing powerhouse, especially in the life sciences. She recruited scientists to write books that would reach not only the scientific community but a general audience as well.

enry started her new job on Labor Day, replacing retiring director Peter Dougherty. She takes over the press at a time of upheaval in the publishing business, to which even elite academic publishers are not immune.

Henry says she has plans to diversify the press’s catalogue and get more books written by women and minorities while not sacrificing the quality of the publications. Currently, about 25 percent of the book list is written by women.

She also wants to increase disciplinary diversity and reach a more diverse group of readers. The press is expanding its horizons geographically. This year it opened a satellite office in Beijing, where the staff will work to sell PUP books on the Chinese market and also recruit Chinese scholars to write books.

The world of academic publishing is very different from the higher-profile commercial publishing industry. Commercial publishing depends on blockbuster hits that sell millions of copies and make up for the many titles that go nowhere. But Princeton University and other such presses make much of their money selling books they know will only sell a small number of copies. For example, Tenner says, a book on group theory in mathematics will never be of interest to the general public. But there are a certain number of people out there who have collections on group theory and will snap up anything published on the subject, even if it is priced at a premium level.

The press puts out about 250 hardcover books and 90 paperback reprints a year, across a broad variety of topics. Some of them have been in print for decades, which is remarkable considering the fast pace of scientific advancement. Henry says the longevity of academic books is one of the appealing parts about working in that arena. (While Henry says it’s like “Christmas every day” when a new publication arrives on her desk, reading all of them would be a herculean task.)

Princeton University Press was founded in 1905 as a small printer above Marsh’s drugstore on Nassau Street, at first doing print jobs for the university and later becoming a full-fledged press. It is unique among academic presses in that it was never owned by the university, though it does have a close relationship with its namesake, sharing board members with the institution. Over its history the press has mainly published textbooks and scholarly studies.

But these days Princeton University Press is not strictly sticking to the traditional formula. Instead the press is putting out books in more varied formats and at a lower price. In 2017 PUP published a book by father-son team Steven and Ben Nadler called “Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) beginnings of Modern Philosophy.” The book told the story of the careers of the early modern philosophers Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza, and others. Where it differs from most academic publications is that it is a graphic novel. Father Steven, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote the book, while his son Ben, an artist, illustrated it.

“Many people think of university publishing as being traditionalist,” Henry says. “But we can engage the readers and be great interlocutors.” Princeton has sought to reach broader audiences even in highly specialized scientific fields. In June PUP will publish “Totally Random: Why Nobody Understands Quantum Mechanics (A Serious Comic on Entanglement),” another graphic novel, which tackles advanced physics in a humorous way.

One of Henry’s last projects at Chicago was a satirical activity book for academics by Julie Schumacher, who wrote the hit humorous novel “Dear Committee Members.” “Doodling for Academics: A Coloring and Activity Book” includes mad-libs, a red tape maze, paper dolls, and coloring.

Princeton dove into the academic satire genre with an anonymously authored paperback called “Keywords; For Further Consideration and Particularly Relevant to Academic Life, Especially as it Concerns Disciplines, Inter-Disciplinary Endeavor and Modes of Resistance to the Same.” The title gives a pretty good idea of the tone of that book. The press, however, had made one previous foray into satire: a 1941 novel called “The Gang’s All Here,” by Tubby Rankin, secretary of the Class of 1917.

On the other end of the spectrum “American Empire,” published in 2018, is a 960-page work of historical and economic scholarship by A.G. Hopkins, arguing that the United States has more in common with the British and other empires of Western Europe than previously thought.

The Princeton press is also embracing the digital revolution. Henry says all of its books are available as e-books, and that more experiments in e-books, multimedia projects, video, and audio are underway. One example of this is the Digital Einstein Project, which is a massive online archive of Einstein’s papers. Henry says she is thinking about launching more projects based on the work of other scholars, though Einstein will be a tough act to follow. “Einstein sets a pretty high bar in terms of interest,” she says.

Henry was born in Africa to parents who were both in the Peace Corps. Her parents became educators when they returned to the U.S. and raised Henry in Montclair. She often faced Princeton teams when she played hockey and lacrosse in high school. “This is very familiar to me,” she says. “I’m happy to be back.”

She went to college at Dartmouth, majoring in journalism. Her first job was with the Chicago Tribune, where she spent time doing research and book reviews. She found herself drawn to the world of books and away from the important but ephemeral work of daily journalism. “Books drew me in because of the longevity,” she says.

Henry left the Tribune in 1993 to become an editorial assistant at the University of Chicago press. She soon found a mentor in the late Susan Abrams, a legendary figure in the academic publishing world. “She was formidable in many ways,” Henry says. “She had a big personality and was and an absolutely brilliant editor.”

Henry worked her way up the ranks to become science editor even though her academic background was in English. As a generalist rather than a specialist, Henry helped scientists find and bring out the story of their work in their writing. For technical expertise she relied on a panel of reviewers. Princeton, too, has a team of scientific experts who perform peer review on the work that gets published there.

“Never pretend to know what the author is talking about,” she says. “Acquisition editors are responsible for a wide range of subjects, and you never will have expertise in all of them no matter how many PhDs you have,” Henry says. But one of the things Abrams taught Henry was that there are things editors can help with even in the most highly specialized book. For example, every book published at Chicago Press featured an introduction that was aimed at a general audience.

Sometimes scientific books can be decades in the making. At Chicago one of Henry’s biggest successes was 2017’s “How to Tame a Fox and Build a Dog” by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut. The book is based on work undertaken by Trut and another Russian biologist, Dmitri Belyaev, in 1959. The researchers set out to study the process of domestication by taking wild foxes and breeding them over generations to be friendly pets, attempting to mimic the process that turned wolves into dogs. Belyaev died before the work was completed and the experiment is ongoing after 56 generations of foxes. The scientists worked secretly since the premise of their investigation contradicted official Soviet ideology, which held that the concept of genetics was a capitalist lie. The book has earned positive reviews and commercial success.

Another long-term project that paid off was Princeton’s 2017 publication of Emmet Gowin’s book “Mariposas Nocturnas,” in which he photographed 1,000 moths over a 15-year period. The full-color book by the 75-year-old former Princeton art professor shows the beauty of the humble insect.

“It might take decades to build a book, but we exist to make sure that book is available for decades to come,” Henry says.

Henry says that over the course of her career public interest in science has grown, creating more demand for science books aimed at the general population, and therefore more competition for scientists. “We’ll have to double down and make sure we can compete,” she says.

Another change in the industry is that because of the Internet, the “tradecraft” aspect of finding authors is a bit more of an even playing field. While Tenner used to get advance knowledge of authorial intentions by collecting university schedules, those lecture schedules are now on the Internet for anyone to find. Editors now search social media and academic meetings in search of writers.

As Henry adjusts to her new job, she has had a few surprises. One was that the jargon between publishing houses is completely different, with different terms being used for the same processes. “I joke about needing a field guide for the local acronyms,” she says.

Another was that among the staff at the press, each person has taken a wildly different career path to get to the same place. “I think a pleasant surprise I have had is the incredible talent in terms of publishing expertise,” she says.

In addition to bringing diversity to the book list, Henry plans to add diversity to PUP’s internship program. Every year the publisher hosts about half a dozen interns. Next year those interns will be paid. This is not only to be fair to the student workers, but to give people from different backgrounds a chance to work there. “We want to get more people who can’t afford to work without being compensated,” she says.

Henry plans to visit the press’s Beijing office this spring. Currently staff there are negotiating book rights for selling Princeton titles in China while trying to build “a bridge for Chinese scholars to enter the American-English book publishing world. This team must negotiate not only cultural differences, but the censorious Chinese government, which severely restricts work on subjects like the Chinese democracy movement and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

In academic publishing the presses of elite institutions must distinguish themselves from their competitors. The high-end presses all have associations with prestigious institutions — Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, and so on — so they must find some way to stand out from the pack. Henry says Princeton is striving to publish a greater diversity of book types than other presses. And while the behemoth of the publishing world, Oxford, has more titles, Henry says Princeton has more flexibility.

“We want to really reach students and scholars and the general public,” she says. “We have more agility because of our size to adapt individual books in a more significant way.”

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